History of Tattoos

Getting Ink

While there are no records and no one can be entirely sure, historical evidence seems to show tattooing probably first made an appearance almost 40,000 years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic era (the Stone Ages). Evidence of tattooing that included bone tattoo tools and pigments were found in a cave in France during a recent excavation.

From that point, the art of tattooing infiltrated almost all cultures around the world, to some extent or other. The rise and fall of tattooing doesn't seem to have followed a particular pattern, but some highlights of the trend have been broken down below.

Early History of Tattoos

The oldest mummy every found - dated back to the Bronze Age of Europe - is also the oldest example of tattooing. The mummy had 59 tattoos, including stripes, lines and cruciform marks on various parts of his body, and thus began the history of tattoos. No one is sure of the meaning of the tattoos. Some may have been markings from his tribe, others may have been from rituals or even from medical procedures. Speculation abounds, but true reasons will be difficult to determine unless new evidence is found.

Women (and only women) were tattooed in Egypt in 1550 BC. While tattooing seems to have been around in Egypt before this time, this is when the simple dot and dash designs began to morph into recognizable forms, although most were still largely stick figures.

In 316 A.D., the first known written ban on tattooing is found. Constantine, recently converted to Christianity, prohibited tattooing on the face as it was disfiguring that "which had been fashioned in the likeness of divine beauty."

Much of the tattooing done during this time period was often to:

  • Identify tribes or families
  • Mark criminals and spies
  • Ward off illness or injury
  • Worship in various religions
  • Show status

While it is possible that some tattooing was done for artistic purposes, the tattoos were often simple and primitive, making them more simple marks than the artistry we see today.

The History of Tattoos in Other Countries

In Japan, the Yakuza, an organized crime syndicate, used full-body tattoos as a way of both identifying members and making members prove commitment to the group. In Great Britain, the Danes, Norse and Saxons tattooed themselves with family crests to show their own familial affiliations until the eleventh century when the Normans invaded and put an end to the practice.

William Dampher and Captain Cook were both responsible for re-introducing tattooing and garnering interest in tattooing in the upper classes in England. Both brought tattooed men back from their travels - Dampher brought the Painted Prince from Polynesia, and Cook brought Omai from Polynesia. The Painted Prince was a curiosity, but it wasn't until Omai came to England that tattooing began to surge in popularity.

The history of tattooing is by no means restricted from nobility. Over time, kings, queens and czars have had tattoos. King Harold of England (1020-1066) was identified after his death on the battlefield by a tattoo over his heart - "Edith." King Edward VII of England had a Jerusalem Cross on his forearm, and King George V of England had a dragon on his forearm. Other members of royalty with tattoos include Czar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Queen Olga of Greece.

The History of American Tattoos

American tattooing

Early American tattoos tended to be memorial tattoos. During the Civil War, tattoo artists often worked near battlefields, creating tattoos in memory of fallen soldiers and comrades, the military life, and American patriotism in general.

It wasn't until 1891 when Samuel O'Reily patented his tattoo machine in New York that tattoos truly grew in popularity among the general public in America, however. Using Edison's 'electric pen' design, O'Reily's creation allowed everyone to get a tattoo. This was both good and bad; the average man was more likely to get tattoos, but tattooing in the upper class began to become less popular since it was no longer a status symbol.

The Twentieth Century

Hepatitis scare

At the turn of twentieth century, the tattoo was still rare. In 1936, Life Magazine said that only 6% of people were tattooed, but over 300 completely tattooed people were employed in circuses, carnivals and freak shows, often earning $200.00 or more a week (equivalent to $2,000 in today's money).

In the early 1900s, tattooing was considered lower-class, and it was difficult to find a respectable tattoo artist. There were no regulations, and while tattoo suppliers existed, they weren't advertising publicly. No magazines or associations existed.

In the mid-1900s, tattooing was still looked down upon. Most people considered those with tattoos to be either members of biker gangs or delinquents. A hepatitis outbreak (caused by lack of regulation and sanitation) furthered this downward spiral of tattooing.

Modern Day Tattooing

According to a survey done in 2006 by the Journal of American Academy of Dermatology, today 24% of Americans aged 18 to 50 are tattooed and 36% of 18 to 29 year olds were tattooed. By 2010, those numbers had climbed to 36% and 40% respectively. Tattooing is on the rise, both in acceptance and in popularity. Whether or not it's at a peak is unknown. New regulations, sanitation standards, tools and materials have made tattooing easier and more accessible than previously.

While tattooing has gone through many changes, the purposes for tattooing are still very similar. Artistic tattooing is on the rise, but the use of gang tattoos show that using tattoos to show tribe and family affiliation is still a viable purpose for tattoos.


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History of Tattoos